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  • Rewind to 2003

The day a simmering rivalry boiled over

Nick Atkin
November 7, 2013
Martin Keown received a £20,000 fine for his actions on September 21, 2003 © Getty Images
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"A famous rivalry shrivelled until all that remained was spite," wrote Kevin McCarra for the Guardian in the aftermath of Arsenal's infamous trip to face Manchester United at Old Trafford in September 2003. And of a 0-0 draw to boot.

But can a rivalry really be called a rivalry if it becomes one-sided? It has been eight years since Arsenal last won a trophy, the FA Cup in 2005, and nine since 'The Invincibles' of 2003-2004 swept all before them in the league.

In that ensuing period, Sir Alex Ferguson went from frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of Arsene Wenger's name, to paying him lip service with quips about his shrewd bargaining skills over the transfer of Robin van Persie 15 months ago. From butting heads as the most bitter of title rivals to United poaching Arsenal's best player. It has been a long fall from grace for Arsenal. But as they threaten to finally contend for the title again, the fixture is set for a fresh injection of life this weekend.

Patrick Vieira was sent off after kicking out at Ruud van Nistelrooy © Getty Images
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No one could have imagined what Arsenal would go on to achieve in 2003-2004, but it all came so close to ending right then and there, as the animosity between the Gunners and United reached new heights. Those 26 wins and 12 draws - a little more than 10 years ago on September 21, 2003, with Arsenal heading to Old Trafford off the back of four wins and a draw, Ruud van Nistelrooy had an opportunity to prevent the soon-to-be 'Invincibles' from ever getting that far.

As Matt Dickinson wrote in the Times following the game, "Sven-Goran Eriksson and Nancy Dell'Olio, the England head coach's girlfriend, were at Old Trafford shortly after the launch of their Truce International charity which promotes the idea that football can end conflict. It can also start it, although there was no hint of what was to follow during a cautious first 80 minutes."

As the match entered its final stretch, Van Nistelrooy contested a high ball, rather clumsily, with Patrick Vieira, falling on top of the midfielder and knocking him to the ground. Vieira didn't like it, and darted a boot in the Dutchman's direction. Van Nistelrooy "jumped back like a matador evading a fiery bull," as Henry Winter put it in the Telegraph. "Sneakiness pure and simply."

Keown immediately ran to Van Nistelrooy and grabbed the back of his shirt, as referee Steve Bennett blew his whistle. Jens Lehmann charged 30 yards from his goalmouth to confront Bennett, who was already pulling the red card from his top pocket by the time the keeper arrived.

Roy Keane playing the role of peacemaker - who would've thought it? © Getty Images
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Vieira had been sent off for a second bookable offence. Ray Parlour, Gilberto and Vieira joined in with Lehmann, surrounding Bennett, who was walking away but could not escape. Vieira suddenly broke into a sprint, shoving Roy Keane out of his way to join a 22-man melee that had gathered at the edge of Arsenal's box. Soon it was a 25-man melee, as Bennett and both linesmen tried to intervene, the referee sensibly trying to drag Van Nistelrooy away.

Vieira would say afterwards: "I'm really angry with Van Nistelrooy. He tried to stamp on me and then he made more of the challenge than he should have done. He cheated." Keown later explained: "There was a team aggression towards him. He took a dive, feigned injury and Vieira was sent off. We'd had enough of him and any respect went."

Order was eventually restored. Then, with seconds of the match remaining, Van Nistelrooy picked up the ball and spread it wide to Gary Neville who curled a cross into the box. Diego Forlan darted towards the ball but so did Keown, extending his arm. They both hit the floor, Forlan underneath Keown's sprawling frame. Soon a wide-eyed stare of disbelief crossed Keown's eyes - Bennett had pointed to the spot. Lehmann was straight in Bennett's face again, before Mikael Silvestre barged into his back to try and retrieve the ball the German was holding. Wenger had his hands on his hips on the touchline (no fumbling about awkwardly with zips here). "The game was drifting nowhere and then it was like the Alamo - the anger was fuelling," said Keown. "We thought they had got three points and only achieved it by unfair means."

View from the stands - John Brewin

Patrick Vieira had to be restrained from confronting Ruud van Nistelrooy © Getty Images
  • Arsenal always had it in for Van Nistelrooy. The game was filled with skirmishes. He was not a player to back off, either.
  • Gunners fans, a far louder bunch away from their home, booed his every touch. That transposed to their players. When Vieira was dismissed for kicking Van Nistelrooy, United, who had previously been blunt, tried to push home their advantage.
  • The penalty looked soft, Arsenal's lengthy protests delayed the kick. When the ball crashed off the crossbar, initial silence turned to rage when Keown larged it in Neanderthal fashion. Cristiano Ronaldo, just 18, marked himself out as a man by backing his colleague when the fists started flying. A football crowd became onlookers on a schoolyard scrap. The match finished with boos and barracking as the teams eventually left the field.
  • Outside the ground, stewards foolishly let Arsenal fans out at the same time as United's, and several re-enactments were staged. The rivalry, at that time always on simmer, had boiled over.

Van Nistelrooy put the ball on the spot, stepped back several spaces. "Lehmann moved manically from side to side just behind the line, rather as if he were a Subbuteo goalkeeper on a stick held by an overexcited schoolboy," wrote McCarra. Lehmann guessed the wrong way, diving to his left. The ball went the opposite direction, but kept rising. It was too high. It cannoned off the crossbar with a startling thwack, and bounced back down in front of the goal before it was cleared. Keown was already in Van Nistelrooy's face, but soon abandoned his efforts because Keane had pumped the ball back forward to his striker. Van Nistelrooy controlled it with his back to goal before four Arsenal players descended on him at once. He was bundled over, and the ball hacked away, as the final whistle went.

Suddenly Van Nistelrooy was being pushed from all angles, his body bouncing from one side to the other. A wide-eyed Lauren was first up, running straight to Van Nistelrooy while he was still picking himself up. Keown then leapt up like a loon, arms outstretched in jumping-jack fashion, right in Van Nistelrooy's face, bringing a forearm down on the back of the Dutchman's head. "Ray Parlour and Lauren steamed in like playground bullies," wrote Winter. Van Nistelrooy stumbled, not knowing where to go, before Keane put an arm around him and pulled him away. Yes, Roy Keane had become the peacemaker.

But Cristiano Ronaldo was having none of it. Silvestre and Quinton Fortune soon joined him as they scuffled with Edu, Kolo Toure and Ashley Cole. A few feet away Keown was pushed by Neville, and all hell broke loose. "Bennett, who was in the middle of the melee, attempted to introduce the concept of harmony, an admittedly rare notion in meetings between these royal rivals," wrote Winter.

The British press were damning of Vieira and Wenger. Martin Samuel described Arsenal in the Times as "a mewling bunch of juveniles that frequently masquerade as a team," an outfit "beyond control". Winter was just as savage: "Arsenal may have worn yellow yesterday but they were tainted with red. The face of the beautiful game was ravaged with scars and tears." Dickinson said: "There is a thin line between celebrating and gloating and Arsenal trampled over it at Old Trafford with a shocking lack of class."

Wenger launched into a tirade against Van Nistelrooy post-match. "You cannot tell me that Vieira is the devil and that Van Nistelrooy is an angel," he said. "Van Nistelrooy looks a nice boy, but on the pitch he doesn't always behave fairly. We saw Van Nistelrooy went for him. I think it is cheating."

Ferguson kept his silence at the time. But all these years later, he has been a little more forthcoming. In his new autobiography he writes: "Arsene had a thing about Van Nistelrooy. I remember him saying he'd had a chance to sign Ruud but had decided he was not good enough to play for Arsenal. I agreed with him in the sense that Van Nistelrooy may not have been a great footballer. But he was a great goal-scorer." A shame for United he missed this time round.

We could have paid for a new roof at the FA for the amount we paid in fines over that incident
Martin Keown

Keown received a three-match ban and a £20,000 fine from the FA for his part in the fracas. Lauren, Parlour, Vieira and Cole were all fined too. "We could have paid for a new roof at the FA for the amount we paid in fines over that incident, but I don't go through my life regretting things," said Keown recently. "I make my decisions based on the time, when you don't have the benefit of hindsight.

"I look back and have great respect for Van Nistelrooy. He was probably the best finisher Manchester United have had. But he got what he got then because we'd had enough of him.

"You could say what we did was unforgivable, but we jumped up and down around him. The media were focussing on that rather than the result, so we had an idea of the ripple effect. I know about role models. There is a way to conduct yourself. I should have done far better. But I can't take it back and I'm not sure I want to take it back. There is sometimes a line you go over.

"I rang my wife after the game, and she's usually very supportive, but she said 'I think you've gone and done it now'. It was the first time she'd ever said anything like that. After that I tried to stay in hiding."

What happened next?

Arsenal would go on to record another 22 wins and 10 draws in the league, ending the season unbeaten and earning the Invincibles nickname. But they would drift apart one by one in the next few years, and with their demise went the intensity of Arsenal versus Manchester United.

Ferguson was almost apologetic when United would thrash Arsenal 8-2 at Old Trafford eight years later. There was nothing like the intense, improvised chaos of meetings past between the two sides, purely because United did not see Arsenal as contenders anymore.

That has all changed now. There is suddenly a lot more on the line. Win and Arsenal send out a statement. United's challenge would effectively be over too - 11 points would surely be too much. As Simon Barnes wrote in the Times following the September 2003 incident, "Vieira sent the match fizzing into the final minutes with those unseemly things that we're not supposed to like in football: hatred, resentment, anger, spite. And no one could look away." Deep down, few would deny they would enjoy some of the same again on Sunday.

Nick Atkin is an assistant editor for ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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